It’s not just her looks that remind Erin Foster’s family of her mum, Caroline.
The lively three-year-old has also inherited many of her mannerisms including her strong will and sunny nature.
During the dark days after Caroline’s death, it was Erin who kept her dad Andy going.
And it’s still her smile that lights up his face, as Caroline’s close-knit family and friends continue to grieve for her loss.
When doctors told them she was suffering from depression, they promised they’d help get her out the other side.
But when brain scans revealed a cyst the size of an orange and what looked like a sea of white mist behind it, there was nothing anyone could do.
At the age of 38 – and with a young daughter to cherish – Caroline died from the brain tumour that had crept up on her with such sudden devastation her loved ones are still reeling.
For Andy, it wasn’t just the loss of the woman he’d loved since he was 18 that he had to make sense of. Left behind to care for Erin, he had to focus on what to tell their daughter and how she would cope without her mum.
Struggling to put all he feels into words, Andy admits: ‘I don’t know how I did it to be honest. Being so young you don’t talk about funerals, or how you’re going to go, or wills. You just don’t think about it. That was probably the hardest thing but it was just about Erin. I just wanted to give her stability and her routine.’
He adds: ‘She’s got Caroline’s mannerisms. She’s very forward and clever and she puts me in my place. I got through it with family and friends.
‘Without their support I couldn’t have done any of it.’
Keen scuba diver Caroline hadn’t always wanted children but when Erin came along she was besotted and would spend hours just watching her play. Bubbly and funny, her friends say she loved life and had a wicked sense of humour. And Andy and Caroline had been together since they were teenagers, marrying in 2005.
Depression had been something that Caroline had suffered from before, so when in early 2010 people began noticing a change in her, they thought that was the underlying cause.
‘I first noticed something was wrong just after Christmas,’ says Andy, from Fareham.
‘She was different and wasn’t focusing on things. She just wasn’t herself, she wasn’t caring for herself.
‘I was off work at the time so I noticed it more but I wasn’t sure what it was. She’d suffered from depression before but nothing as bad.
‘She was being treated for depression and when we went to the doctor he upped her dose of Prozac. He doubled it, just to see if that would work.
‘With hindsight, it wasn’t going to work. But we just thought “She’s got that, we can deal with this”.
‘You’re guessing at what it could be.’
Everyone noticed the changes and sister-in-law, Karen Adams, remembers asking Caroline how long she’d been feeling that way: ‘She would spend hours in the bath, just topping up the water,’ adds Karen. ‘She lost all her inhibitions. She’d always had a strong mind about what she wanted to do, she was always quite driven.
‘Looking back, it was happening over quite a few months. There was a time when it was happening very slowly.’
Sadly, Caroline deteriorated further and when she became incontinent they went back to see the doctor. Fearing she’d had a mental breakdown, health workers carried out an assessment and arranged for Caroline to go to The Meadows, a mental health hospital in Southampton.
‘I think she definitely lost all feeling for anything,’ remembers Andy. ‘There was no emotion. It was hard and frustrating.’
Friend Nicky White adds: ‘She didn’t know why she was at The Meadows, she wasn’t upset, it was more upsetting for the people who loved her because we could see she was getting worse.’
As she began to lose more of her physical functions, Caroline was admitted to Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, and then Southampton General, where tests revealed a far more sinister reason for her personality change and lack of energy.
At the beginning of April, Andy was given the devastating news that Caroline was dying. The doctors had found a cyst and a lesion behind it, showing that she was suffering from an aggressive, fast-growing brain tumour.
They gave her a maximum of three months to live but she died just eight weeks after diagnosis.
While trying to keep life as normal as possible for Erin, Andy agonised over whether to share what he knew with his wife.
‘I thought she should know,’ he says. ‘I wanted to tell her but each time the doctors came in and we were going to tell her they’d change their minds, or say they weren’t sure how she’d take it, so we decided not to tell her and that was even harder.
‘It was like a game of pretence because she’d say “Are we just waiting for the test results now?” and we’d say yes.’
Karen adds: ‘It took less than six months from start to finish. It can happen to anyone of any age, it was just one of those horrible tragedies that was nothing to do with anything.
‘Anyone of us could have got it. Unfortunately it was someone we loved.’
Faced with the earth-shattering news they began to work out where Caroline would spend her final days. The home she shared with Andy and Erin wasn’t large enough to accommodate the 24-hour nursing care she was going to need. So when Karen woke up one night and realised Caroline could move into her home in Gosport, she thought it was the perfect solution. Andy, however, needed some convincing.
‘The alternative was a residential care home,’ says Karen, ‘We went round there to the care home and it was all very nice. It’s just if Erin wanted to visit they would have to take Caroline to another room, put a screen around her and let Erin visit. It was important that she had her time with her mum.
‘Andy said no to having her here at first but I got him round here one day. It was sunny and I opened the balcony doors and put some music on and he just cried.
‘We had her bed in the lounge and she could see the children playing outside. Nothing was forced it was all so natural.
‘Caroline loved spring because she said that’s when everything came to life. She died on May 31, the last day of spring.’
Andy adds: ‘I didn’t want to involve family members. Karen offered to have Caroline but I didn’t think it was fair. But the residential home wasn’t right for Caroline and I wanted to protect Erin. She was always with me when I was round at Karen’s but I needed to give her stability.
‘I spent my days with her and then went home and tried to keep it normal for Erin.
‘Three days before Caroline died there was quite a big build up. During the day the carer had spoken to me and said they thought it might be her last night. I phoned and texted everyone just to let them know and they met up here and that night she was in a bad way.
‘We all thought it was going to be her last night but no, she made it through the night and the following day it was like a big release, it was almost like saying goodbye and that helped everyone 100 per cent. The next few days were really calm.’
In May, the family marked their first year without Caroline but she’s never far from their thoughts. The tears flow freely as they remember the harrowing days and the happier times.
And as Erin runs in and out, pausing for a cuddle with Andy, or to chat to her aunty Karen, it’s clear how much this little girl unites them and keeps them going.
‘She understands a fair bit, basically she knows her mummy is an angel,’ says Andy. ‘She says things like “Mummy’s taking a long time coming back”.
‘She knows she’s in heaven but doesn’t know the concept of it. She doesn’t ask every day. She’s just coped with it. I’ve just tried to do my best. Any questions she asks she gets an honest answer. She doesn’t get the real fairy tales.’
Karen adds: ‘Erin got Andy through it all. We didn’t know anything about brain tumours or the signs and symptoms of what to look for. There might be someone else who has experienced a similar sort of thing.
‘We talked about when she gets better and how we’d be there to help. We didn’t know she wasn’t going to get better.
‘People should look out for personality changes. If someone’s suffering from depression and it’s getting worse, it might not be that.’
Karen Adams has already set in motion a plan to help her niece.
Under the name Erin’s Angels, she’s organising an event that will raise funds for brain tumour research.
The fundraiser will take place on March 24 at Gosport’s Thorngate Halls and as well as raising awareness, Karen intends it to be a celebration of Caroline’s life.
‘I really just want to make people more aware of brain tumours really, the fact that they are there,’ explains Karen.
‘People need to know about it and the night will be like a celebration for Caroline. It will be almost two years since it all started and we want Caroline’s memory to be a positive one for Erin.
‘I want to keep it going and it’s something that Erin can grow up with and say to people “This is all about my mum”.’
Caroline’s good friend, Nicky White, adds: ‘Karen has an amazing ability to organise and we all want Caroline’s memory to be a positive thing for Erin.
‘She’s going to have lots of people doing good things in her mummy’s name and that’s such a positive message for her because Caroline did a lot for charity and Erin is so much her mother’s daughter.’
Karen has already abseiled down the Spinnaker Tower to raise money for The Rowans Hospice to say thanks for the help they gave Erin with counselling sessions following her mum’s death.
In the future she hopes Erin’s Angels can raise lots more money.
‘There’s lots of things we can do in the future,’ adds Karen. ‘All we want to do is help Erin and Andy through what has been a horrible tragedy. I couldn’t have gone through all that he’s been through.
‘I see Erin change so much and Caroline isn’t here to see that and it hits you like a train. She loved her so much. It’s so cruel that it was taken away from her.’
Anyone who would like to support the fundraiser can email Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org